Former President Clinton a popular ally on Democratic campaign trail

Rep. Joe Sestak (D., Pa.) seeksa Senate seat.
Rep. Joe Sestak (D., Pa.) seeksa Senate seat.
Posted: August 09, 2010

It's no secret that Democrats running for the U.S. Senate and House are keeping a respectful distance from President Obama as they fight to keep the party's control of Congress in the fall. After all, the president's approval ratings are anemic, Republicans are fired up, and the recession endures.

So when Rep. Joe Sestak, Pennsylvania's Democratic nominee for Senate, told reporters after a recent Harrisburg stop that Obama had offered to campaign for him, he added that "my No. 1 choice" for a visit would be the first lady.

So far, the White House has no plans to make Michelle Obama available, but a previous resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue - former President Bill Clinton - seems to be everywhere.

On Tuesday, the man known affectionately among Democrats as "the Big Dawg" will hold a rally in Scranton for Sestak, who, as a Navy admiral, was director of defense policy on the Clinton White House staff. Clinton also will stump that day for congressional candidate John Callahan in the Lehigh Valley, and will appear at an evening fund-raiser in Philadelphia for Dan Onorato, the Democratic nominee for governor.

An average of 44.5 percent of registered voters responding to national surveys approve of the job Obama is doing, according to Pollster.com. Only an average of 38 percent of independents do. When Obama traveled recently to Georgia and Missouri, Democratic candidates claimed scheduling conflicts.

"Obama's divisive at the moment - he cuts both ways," said pollster G. Terry Madonna of Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster. "Independents have turned on him, and these are the quintessential suburban voters you need to win in Pennsylvania. Clinton is the one national politician a Democrat can take anywhere in the state."

Clinton's reputation has been enjoying a renaissance of late. A Gallup poll of 1,020 adults surveyed last month found that Clinton was viewed favorably by 61 percent of respondents - nine percentage points higher than Obama's score, and 16 percentage points higher than that of former President George W. Bush.

Clinton's campaigning helped Democrats win the special election in May to fill the 12th District congressional seat in the conservative Johnstown area after the death of longtime Democratic Rep. John Murtha. Clinton also is credited with an assist in the survival of moderate Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln in his native Arkansas; she fended off a primary challenge from the left.

"Former presidents always enjoy increased popularity - they don't have the burden of expectations," said David Dunphy, a Democratic political consultant in Philadelphia. He noted that Obama, even at his current low point in the polls, has a marginally higher rating than President Ronald Reagan and Clinton himself did heading into their first midterm elections.

And arguably Obama is dealing with graver economic problems than Reagan had in 1982 and Clinton faced in 1994, both periods when the nation was struggling to recover from recessions, Dunphy said.

People have largely forgotten the weak economy early in Clinton's first term and the later sex scandal and impeachment crisis, analysts say. Clinton is remembered more for leaving a budget surplus in a booming economy.

"It's always easier to look back on a presidency," Dunphy said. "Now, Bill Clinton is the guy who just married off his daughter, who's rebuilding Haiti, and undertaking relief missions all over the world."

For Sestak, Clinton has special resonance. The former president can testify to voters about the strategic military planning Sestak handled in the White House, highlighting the candidate's 30-year Navy career - perhaps a more valuable credential than his being a member of Congress, given the public mood.

And Sestak advisers know that Scranton, a hotbed of Clinton support, is the perfect market for the former president.

His wife, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, has roots there; her family stills own a cottage on Lake Winola.

Republicans are sure to remind people that the former president was dispatched by Obama's chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, to try to entice Sestak to drop his Democratic primary challenge to Sen. Arlen Specter with an offer of a presidential advisory post. The futile attempt became an embarrassment for the White House.

After some tension between the White House and congressional Democrats who were sick of his railing against a "broken Washington" because they were part of it, Obama has trained his recent rhetorical fire on the GOP. He has begun warning that Republicans would return the country to the unpopular policies of George W. Bush if they gain power in Congress.

Analysts like Madonna say that an Obama visit would be an asset for Democratic candidates in some areas. And Obama remains a powerful draw as a fund-raiser. The White House closes such fund-raising events to cameras, and allows reporting only of the president's formal remarks, which are usually brief.

Indeed, Obama's schedule has been packed with fund-raising gigs in July and through August - including in Manhattan, Texas, Missouri, his hometown of Chicago, and Los Angeles.

Said Dunphy, "There are very few Democratic candidates who wouldn't welcome a fund-raising appearance from the president."


Contact staff writer Thomas Fitzgerald at 215-854-2718 or tfitzgerald@phillynews.com.

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